Gibson finds rhythm in wake of contract

Even when Taj Gibson's shot isn't falling, he can fall back on his excellent defense. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

CHICAGO -- The tenor of Taj Gibson's season changed a couple of weeks ago because of a conversation with Tom Thibodeau.

After Gibson signed a four-year extension -- worth up to $39 million with certain escalators -- on opening night, Thibodeau saw what many saw early this season in regards to Gibson's play.

"Thibs said 'You're pressing,'" Gibson said after Saturday night's win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Thibodeau watched proudly as Gibson developed into one of the best reserves in the game over the past few years. The USC alum was a force defensively and worked hard to develop a consistent mid-range jumper.

But this season was different. Since the preseason and the constant chatter about whether he would get an extension done, Gibson didn't look like the same player. He wasn't playing with the same zeal and looked increasingly frustrated at times on the floor. So Thibodeau picked up the phone a couple weeks ago and tried to get the 27-year-old back on track.

"I remember one day he called me, he pulled me to the side and said, 'Don't worry about it, you're pressing,'" Gibson said. "Just play your game, have fun, you're doing a great job on defense and doing good leading our defense. Just stay with the fundamentals, just have fun, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"Every day in practice I'm going hard, I'm going in early, I'm staying late and I'm just trying to get better. It's going to be ups and downs, that's what I realized early in my career, it's been times when I wasn't shooting the ball well, but then come playoff time I'm at a high. Just got to stay the course and keep playing."

That's the message Gibson has gotten from people throughout the Bulls' organization and that's why his recent play, including an 11-point, eight-rebound effort Saturday night, feels so much more rewarding. He took Thibodeau's words to heart and has turned his outlook around.

"My coach is great," Gibson said. "Thibs and the coaching staff keep telling me just keep doing what I'm doing. Just focus on getting better in practice, take one game at a time.

"I only worry about what the team wants me to do. I go in there and try to be solid on defense ... lead the defense, be real talkative. And just work on my game in practice and try to get better as the game's going. It's a long season and I understand that. It's one of the things I've learned over the years of being a pro; it's a long season, don't keep my head down, never get too high, never get too low. Just keep playing. I have great teammates that look for me and encourage me to do better."

Those teammates include Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, both of whom have talked to Gibson about the pressures that come with such a large extension.

"They just told me just go out there and play," Gibson said. "It's behind you now. You're going to have people that criticize you all the time and say negative things. That's one thing about being a pro, you have to learn to just put that stuff behind you and just play.

"Especially in Chicago, there's a lot of criticism but I just put it behind behind me. Just go out there, zone out, and play and that's what makes you a pro. Just going out there doing your job under high stakes and I just try to do that."

Gibson has done that over the past few weeks. Since a 1-for-6 performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on November 17, Gibson is 17-for-35 from the field over his last six games.

"Guys have just been telling me to keep taking the looks, don't worry about it," Gibson said. "Just get a stop. Even though I haven't been able to shoot the ball well early, I just always count on my defense; try to make a play on the ball, trying to get a stop. There's multiple things you can do in this game."

Obviously, one of those things is defense, a skill Gibson excelled in over the past three years. Without Omer Asik at his side, Gibson hasn't looked the same this season and he understands that's one of the reasons why his averages don't look the same. It's also one of the explanations as to why he doesn't believe that the pressure of the new contract is what has caused his numbers to slide early on. Gibson is the only holdover from the old Bench Mob and is still adjusting to life without Asik and company.

"You can say a lot of different things," Gibson said of his early struggles. "Maybe the extension, maybe this new group of guys. All I have to focus on is figuring out ways to help the team. My job is to go out there and (provide) more ... I have to just do more on the rebounding, playing more defense, no matter how many minutes I get, if it goes from 17 or if I get 30 minutes a game (my job) is to always be ready and be focused and take advantage of it and just play to my strengths, just have fun. I really had got away from just having fun, just thinking too much. But the last couple games I've just been having fun, just getting back to the old ways of just playing. I feel healthy and I just got to keep running with it."

The happy-go-lucky forward isn't hiding from the pressure of the new deal, though. He knows a lot is expected from him and he wants to live up to his new deal.

"Of course I think about that," he said. "But then that's too much ... I can't put too much pressure on myself. I have to just go out there and just do my job. There's already added pressure wearing a Bulls jersey, but just thinking about all the other stuff that's going to pull you down, you just have to go out there and just play and have fun. That's what I've been doing the last couple of games and just getting back to the basics. Just focusing on defense and when it's time to score, just take my looks."

Gibson also hearkens back to some advice from another former teammate.

"I put (a) countless number of hours in the gym," Gibson continued. "And like Kyle Korver told me last year, 'Sometimes it doesn't go in, it doesn't bounce your way. You just have to stay with your repetitions and keep going and stay the course.' I remember I had games where it was highs and lows and I just wanted to continue to get better and be ready for late in the season and just keep pushing."

If the last couple weeks are any indication, Gibson appears to have found his rhythm again and he is appreciative that his coach took the time to help put his mind at ease. It's a conversation that has gotten Gibson back to his old ways.

"(Thibodeau's) a realist, but he understands I put in the work," Gibson said. "Honestly, I put in so much work and sometimes it's frustrating because you feel like you should make every shot. The way you practice every day you go so hard and you want to do good for your team, not only for yourself but ... it was frustrating, it was really frustrating but Tom just tells me to keep pushing, just keep staying the course and eventually (the numbers) will go back. I got good teammates that tell me that every time. Just keep staying the course and there's going to be ups and downs. It's up to you to get yourself out of it. Nobody's going to feel (bad for you). I don't feel sorry for myself, I don't expect anyone else to feel sorry for me. I just go out there and do my job, I'm a pro."